Winston Churchill’s famous address in the British House of Commons on the subject of the Battle of Britain, in which he so memorably said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” may have been inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
John Michael Gibson, scholar and bibliographer, has uncovered a passage in The Refugees, a historical novel admired by Churchill, that reads: “Never, perhaps, in the world’s history has so small a body of men dominated so large a district and for so long a time.” It refers to the American Indian tribe, the Iroquois, from which Churchill claimed descent.
The Curious Incident of “The Few”
In the annals of history a number of against-the-odds heroic clashes stand out: Thermopylae for the Greeks, the Alamo for Texans, Agincourt for the English — although the latter was really offensive and not defensive.
I suppose one of the greatest clashes was on the hot summer days seventy years ago, from the August 8 to the middle of September, 1940, when the Germans switched to night-time bombing, the Royal Air Force fought the Battle of Britain across the skies of South East England. The battle has rightly been compared with the Armada, Trafalgar, and Waterloo as a turning point in Britain’s history.
On August 15, Churchill on returning from Fighter Command’s Operations Room to Chequers in his Humber staff car said to General Ismay, his Chief of Staff, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Churchill was reminded, if he needed reminding, a few days later by General Ismay, of this telling phrase of poetic quality when he wrote the speech he delivered to the House on August 20. John Colville, Churchill’s Private Secretary, has written that it did not strike him very forcibly at the time but that he saved the first draft from the waste-paper basket and that it was now (1985) on loan to Chequers.
Churchill may have overlooked the 300 Spartans against the 10,000 Persian immortals at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., but nevertheless this ringing phrase on the brave young fighter pilots of the RAF has now passed into legend.
But (and I do not wish to be buried in condemnatory abuse) was this expression truly Churchill’s? Let me hasten to add that I do not accuse the holder of the Nobel Prize for Literature of plagiarism, just that, perhaps, something he had read, maybe almost half a century before, had resonated with him. F.E. Smith (1872–1930), Tory Secretary of State for India and Lord Chancellor, had said jokingly of his friend, “He has devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches.” Is it possible that Churchill remembered from deep in the recesses of his mind something that had resonated with him, perhaps even on a personal basis, in his distant youth?
Churchill was a friend of Sir Arthur Doyle (1859-1930) and an admirer his works. The two men first met at the Pall Mall Club on the 25 October 1900, when each of them delivered a speech on the South African War. Doyle later wrote a letter to The Times on 15 February 1927 on Churchill’s account of the Somme Battle praising his literary style: “Personally, I have long recognised that Winston Churchill has the finest prose style of any contemporary.” (Note the word “finest.”) Also, on the very day of his death (7 July 1920), and in the last letter that he was to write to a newspaper – he sent over one hundred letters to The Times alone – he devoted to the subject of the Dardanelles, and again praised the quality of Churchill’s prose.
After Doyle’s death, Churchill reciprocated their mutual admiration by allowing Doyle’s publisher (John Murray) to use a statement of his as a blurb on the 1950s dust jackets of his historical fiction. It reads: “Of course I read every Sherlock Holmes story, but the works I like even more than the detective stories are the great historical novels which, like Sherlock Holmes, have certainly found a permanent place in English literature.”
Doyle’s historical novel The Refugees, published in May 1893, is about the expulsion of the Huguenots from France under Louis XIV and their escape to North America and their battles with the native first nations. Doyle’s portrayal of the Iroquois was criticized as being too harsh. The author replied that it was no more than the truth and that he had softened rather than heightened the facts. Writing of the Iroquois, Doyle stated in his novel, “Indeed at every step in this country, whether the traveller were on the St. Lawrence, or west upon the lakes, or down upon the banks of the Mississippi, or south in the country of the Cherokees and of the Crees, he would still find the inhabitants in the same state of dreadful expectancy, and from the same cause. The Iroquois, as they were named by the French, or the Five Nations as they called themselves, hung like a cloud over the whole great continent. Their confederation was a natural one, for they were of the same stock and spoke the same language, and all attempts to separate them had been in vain … but in war they were Iroquois, and the enemy of one was the enemy of all. Their numbers were small for they were never able to put two thousand warriors in the field …. But they were united, they were cunning, they were desperately brave, and they were fiercely aggressive and energetic. Holding a central position they struck out upon each side in turn, never content with simply defeating an adversary but absolutely annihilating and destroying him …. One by one they had turned their arms against the various nations, until, for a space of over a thousand miles square, none existed save by sufferance …. Never, perhaps, in the world’s history has so small a body of men dominated so large a district and for so long a time.”
So there it is. One could, perhaps, dismiss the resemblance of the last sentence as merely coincidental, if it were not that Churchill took great pride in claiming his mother’s descent from the Iroquois. Charles Higham in his book, Dark Lady: Winston Churchill’s Mother and Her World, published in 2006, writes, “The story that Jennie’s mother, Clarissa Hall Jerome, was part-Iroquois native American has added lustre to the family legend, fostered not least by Winston Churchill …. ”
Is there, therefore, substance in this claim that “the few” were originally the Iroquois of North America? Is F.E. Smith right in that Churchill kept passages on ice for use at a relevant opportunity? He had undoubtedly read the book as a young man of eighteen and the passages on the Iroquois, because of his maternal grandmother, would have deeply fascinated him and made him proud of his fierce warrior ancestors.
Thus is it possible that Winston Churchill himself was descended from the historical source of “The Few.”
– John Michael Gibson
John Michael Gibson is the author-editor of five books devoted to Conan Doyle – including A Bibliography of A. Conan Doyle which was published by Oxford University Press in 1984. It was the winner of The Edgar Allan Poe Special Award.